Behind the Veil

I work in the real estate development business, but my perspective has always been from the accounting and finance group.  I was a ski bum in Vail after college.  I waited tables at a fancy hotel like so many other ski bums, and it wasn’t my plan to stay in the mountains.  But, the lifestyle was great, I felt healthy and stimulated, and I saw there were real opportunities to work hard and have a career.

A relatively easy entry into accounting in many resort towns is as revenue auditor.  Plus, it usually means you work at night and can ski all day.

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The following is a list of accounting jobs from the lowest level to the highest.  I’ve done all of them.

The Revenue Auditor makes sure the front-line staff recorded all their sales transactions correctly.  The auditor makes sure the point-of-sale system tells the same story as the actual cash and electronic payments received.  Once the revenue auditor signs off and corrects any errors, the daily sales can get recorded in the books.

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The Accounts Payable Clerk is the person you want to know if you rely on a company to pay you.  The A/P clerk enters all the invoices into the accounting system for payment and cuts the checks and disburses them when it’s time to pay.  An organized A/P clerk is essential to a reliable accounting department, for both ensuring expenses are recorded accurately and in a timely manner and for managing cash flow.  In a big company the flow of invoices through the A/P clerk can be overwhelming but good A/P clerks develop procedures and schedules to keep everyone happy.  This is the person most likely to have the famous (in accounting departments at least) sign above their desk that reads “Lack of planning on your part does not constitute an emergency on my part”.

The GL/Staff Accountant doesn’t enter invoices for payment but makes all the journal entries for a company.  Cash deposits and transfers, interest payable and receivable, depreciation and amortization, month-end adjustments and write-offs and maybe even payroll get entered into the system by the staff accountant.  They have the power to keep the books clean and accurate or to really screw them up.

The Financial Analyst is not really an accountant but works closely with the department to harvest financial data and create accurate, relevant, and useful reports for management to use in decision-making.  They often have access to the accounting software so they can write reports directly in the system for easy output. 

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The Assistant Controller is the catch-all once you’ve moved beyond A/P Clerk and G/L Accountant.  Every CFO has been an assistant controller somewhere along the way, and if a company has only one or two accountants, someone is the assistant controller.  The role is responsible for making sure the activity recorded on the books is accurate, that you’re not bouncing checks, that your source documents are organized and auditable, and everyone higher up is getting what they need. 

The Controller usually isn’t in the software except for review.   The controller is managing cash flows in and out, signing checks, and closely following sales.  The controller is reviewing and finalizing financial reports, preparing cash forecasts, dealing with auditors, and overseeing tax work.  The controller may often have some responsibility over the human resources/payroll department and the technology services group.

The VP of Finance is the person in charge of business plans and budgets and matching up the actual work of the accounting department versus budgets while looking into the future.   The VP of Finance needs reliable information from the Controller but also works closely with heads of sales, project management, capital improvements, and other departments to make sure overall company performance is on the right track.  You’ll often find an Ivy League MBA in this role.

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The Chief Financial Officer is the boss.  He or she talks to lenders, investors, Wall Street, the CEO and anyone else who is important to the finances of the business.  The CFO is where the buck stops on the finance side of the business.  You’ll usually find someone here with great technical skills and excellent personal and communication skills.  It takes both to get to the top.

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More on Green Building

Our Director of Environmental Initiatives had a favorite saying.  “There’s no such place as away.”  I get it.  We’re all drowning in plastic.  We poison our water and air.  The Planet Earth documentaries make it clear humans leave a path of destruction wherever we roam.  But we all need a place to live and there are less impactful ways to build homes, along with almost everything else we do as people and businesses and governments in 21st century America.

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We put the “no such thing as away” into practice when we de-constructed part of the old Northstar-at-Tahoe base village.  I have a plaque somewhere showing the ceremonial removal of the hands from the clock on the clocktower building.  We didn’t use a wrecking ball.  I don’t remember anything being demolished.  We literally took the building apart piece by piece and there was a company in the Bay Area who was willing to buy all the raw materials and re-sell them.  I was under the impression they had a massive junkyard somewhere in Oakland where small builders could come shop for secondhand supplies at a discount.

It’s cool to think you can re-use many of the parts and materials from an old building.  I’ve certainly seen the high-end homes using century old recycled barn planks as trophy flooring.  And I’ve also read the stories of thieves looting new construction sites for raw materials like copper.  On the other hand, I have also seen many on-line of videos of old hospitals and hotels being blasted and destroyed and crumbling to earth in a cloud of dust.

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I’m not sure where the breaking point is.  I know one of the measurement criteria in obtaining green status for new construction is to eliminate waste created by recycling and to incorporate recycled materials.

The US Green Building Council awards buildings LEED certification based on levels of green.  LEED is Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.  There are different levels ranging from LEED certified to LEED platinum.  The more elements you can incorporate into new buildings the higher up you can climb on the scale.  It is a point of pride to achieve these standards and they’re not easy.

The problem with residential development though is I don’t think consumers will pay more to buy a LEED home even though it costs more to build, and costs to go through the certification process.  We thought it was a compelling story for the Bay Area market in the early 2000s but while you might feature the story in the sales gallery it didn’t exactly translate into higher sales prices.  It might have been a feel- good factor and a story that got people interested, but certainly not a negotiating point.

With a commercial building the scale of utility savings over the years in a green building can really add up but it doesn’t translate in a compelling way to smaller unit.  In California at least it seems the government is already stepping in to accelerate requirements for green building on a smaller scale.

We did make one green build decision that back-fired big time.  It was a classic example of “no good deed goes unpunished.”  We used recycled rail ties that had been conserved at the bottom of the Great Salt Lake from the time of the transcontinental railroad as siding.  Obviously, the ties were recovered and cut up to make a decorative and supposedly weather proof siding.  It was green.  It was a cool story.  It was new.

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But the siding didn’t perform exactly as the architects and builders planned and that created a field day for the construction defect attorneys that hijacked the HOA and created a massive lawsuit for the developer and insurance companies to defend.  More on defect attorneys in a future blog.  This fight got ugly.

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Green Building

Green building is a thing.  It’s a worthy cause and there are some wonderful examples of green building around the world, but I believe it’s still struggling to find footing, especially in the residential sector.

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When I began in the real estate business in the late 90’s as a low-level staff accountant I never heard discussion of green building nor paid any invoices to consultants who were helping companies achieve results in that realm.   By the time we were rolling on California developments in the mid-2000s everyone was talking about green building.

It helped that the owner and leader of our company had gone off to serve a term as President of the Urban Land Institute and green building was something he championed in that role.  We tried, but it never quite stuck.

We hired a Director of Environmental Initiatives.  As far as I could tell that was progressive to create a role in a development company for someone whose job it was to bring sustainable initiatives, training, and education to everything we did.  He drove a hybrid company car long before they were common.  Of course, after a couple of winters in Tahoe snow he realized he got a raw deal.  The other team members with company vehicles were driving SUVs and Audis with all-wheel drive.  He was chaining up his Honda Civic with every new snowfall in a time when there weren’t many electrics or hybrids to choose from.

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His car story kind of parallels my overall impression of green building.  It’s a great idea, a great story, makes everyone feel good, but it might be a little forced in a way that’s not really paying off for those trying to make a difference.

We were into green building with our new California projects because we thought it was the right thing, thought it would help win project approvals in the town and county, thought it was a good marketing story for the Bay Area consumer, and were genuinely excited to be on the cutting edge of design and construction.

I think green building’s problems are similar to the growing pains we saw in organic produce.  I bought and buy organic but saw the battle over who gets to certify something as organic play out on the grocery store shelves.   It was obvious that some organic claims were pure marketing, and some were real, but hard to pay the organic price when you can’t trust it.  I think the state of Oregon standards were the best, but I can’t remember.   That battle seems to have been solved, or at least removed from the headlines.

Likewise, green building was a free for all, though the United States Green Building Council seems to have emerged as the arbiter of green.  I remember however they didn’t make anything easy.  It’s fine that to get certified green means meeting high standards but based on what I witnessed with our team it seems the USGBC was only slightly easier to work with than the IRS.  They sound governmental, but I hope they’re not.  Frankly, I’m still not sure.  They do produce a nice magazine for you if you’re a member.

Plenty more to cover on green building but will leave that to a future blog.  If you like (or hate) my writing, please follow my blog.  Also, please connect with me on Twitter of LinkedIn.  Thanks.

Chapter 11 Bankruptcy

As one continuation of my blog about the Great Recession, I’d like to share with you what I know and learned about Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  It was the best of times; it was the worst of times.  No, it was really just the worst of times.

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In 2007, the owner and equity partner for our development business sold their entire real estate portfolio to Morgan Stanley.  The core business was nice office buildings throughout Texas and cities in the Southwest.  The timing was perfect for the seller, and the creator of that business is a legitimate billionaire as a result.  Morgan Stanley was buying up real estate as fast as they could to have a place to put all the money that was flowing in from clients that wanted to be in real estate.

They couldn’t buy fast enough.  Even the smartest guys in the industry were caught up the frenzy, same as  our retail buyers who showed up at the lotteries.  They were making the purchases with huge short-term loans from global banks so they could lock up the assets before the equity was even in.  Late in 2007 things started getting a little shaky, but not full on disaster, yet.  The in 2008 we watched everything fall apart.

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I was laying a lot of people off.  We were making sales for the lowest price per foot we’d ever done on a new condo building.  We were desperately trying to pay back construction debt with sales wherever we could.  Buyers were suing to get out of their contracts to close on units.  California law makes it easy to walk from a deal if you can prove the developer did something wrong and that’s the path people were taking.

Sometime in 2009, it became obvious that Morgan Stanley would not be funding our business any longer.  We were on our own to cut costs and generate revenue however possible, and they were going to default on the $4 billion loan they used to acquire the business that owned ours.  The mighty Morgan Stanley was on the ropes themselves.  It was just unimaginable to watch these institutions that once seemed only second to the Federal Government in terms of wealth and power just dry up and crumble away.

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Remember seeing this guy on the news every day? Treasury Secretary Paulson

I was the Corporate Controller of the business at the time and not involved in every decision at the top.  Some time in the fall of 2019 I started to hear that a bankruptcy was being considered.  I knew nothing about it at the time but was going to learn quickly.

As I’ve mentioned before we were in the first third of a long-term development project that had taken many thousands of hours and endless expertise and hundreds of millions to dollars to lay the groundwork for so we couldn’t just walk away.

There was much cross-collateralization of debt at the time (this topic is worthy of another blog) and we had a plan to protect the “good” long-term assets in exchange for giving up some of the heavily-indebted ready for sale inventory, including a 5-star luxury hotel that had been 10 years in the making.

The plan was to file a Chapter 11 bankruptcy.  Chapter 11 is a plan to stay in business.  It means all the parties with current or future money owed must vote for a deal that affirms they would rather take something less and agree there is benefit to your business surviving.  Chapter 7 means liquidation, the business is over, and the creditors divvy up the proceeds of the sale of assets.

I will blog again about being in the middle of Chapter 11 and how it ended up.  If you like my blog, please follow in the sidebar to the right. Also, please connect with me on Twitter or LinkedIn.

9/11 and a Leadership Lesson

I remember distinctly where I was on 9/11.  I was living in my studio apartment in West Vail.  I had a great job working for the developer of Beaver Creek.  I had my own place for the first time, no roommates.  I was driving my shiny new red Tacoma truck around a great mountain town, skiing all winter, mountain-biking all summer, catching as much live music as I could.  Life was good.

I woke up that morning to the sound of NPR on my clock radio.  It must have been about 7:30 AM Mountain time when the alarm went off.  I could not make any sense of what they were talking about.  They were panicked and something big had happened.  I drifted in and out of sleep.  I had an answering machine and a friend from New York called.  She started talking about something, and left a message I couldn’t understand, either.  What the hell was going on?

I got up and turned on the television.  Planes had crashed into the World Trade Center in New York?  And the Pentagon, too?  I just could not process it and had no idea of the significance, so I showered , dressed, and went to work. 

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Not much got done that day.  By the time I got to the office, all the team who had decided to come in were gathered in the conference room, watching the news, mesmerized and in complete shock.

Again, I was working for a development company, had a nice office in Beaver Creek.  We felt very safe and far away from any danger.  I remember feeling like the Rocky Mountains were fortress walls all around us.  I had lived in New York and still had some good friends there, but it felt a world away.

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Some of us would occasionally go to our offices or cubes and pretend to work but you couldn’t distract yourself and no one was working in an office anywhere in the country.

The man I worked for at the time was one of the best leaders I’ve ever known and someone I consider a role model to this day.  He was hyper energetic, fearless, creative, sincere, fair, generous, and an excellent communicator.  Despite his busy schedule and important business, he never walked by someone without saying hello.  He made everyone feel included, important, and valuable to his organization and because of that was able to attract tremendous talent around him.  He and his leadership style are worthy of another blog at another time.

But I remember something distinctly about how he reacted on 9/11.  He was popping in and out of the conference room on that day, too.  I think we were all in the room when the first tower fell, and I remember a woman in the office started crying.  I just couldn’t imagine what had happened.  All I could think of was my favorite view of the towers when I lived in the city, from Mcdougal Street in the Village.  Looking south they were framed perfectly on the horizon, looming over trees in the Village and the low buildings in SoHo.

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But the leader of our group that day was focused on the President.  He was so frustrated by the fact that no one knew where the President was.  We now know he was flying around the country on Air Force One, avoiding the possibility of being a target, but I cannot remember the public knew that any time that morning.  But our leader at work thought that was terrible leadership and it bothered him tremendously.  He thought the President should be on the ground, unafraid, making decisions, and communicating with the country in a traumatic time.

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I don’t think anyone else in the office was thinking that.  We were thinking, “OK, whatever they tell us or don’t tell us, the President needs to be safe”.  I am certain none of the rest of us were anywhere near our company owner and leader on the leadership intelligence spectrum.  His reaction was different, he was thinking about how to lead in a crisis, and I’ll never forget that.

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The Great Recession

The Great Recession happened right in the middle of my career.  I worked for a real estate development company on a large-scale project that was about 7 or 8 years into a 25-year master plan.  And it was high-end, second home resort development in California.  It really could not have been worse.

We started on several golf and ski resort communities in 2000.  We were taking a model that had worked in the high-end mountain resorts of Colorado especially well during the convergence of the late 90s tech bubble and empty nest baby boomers arriving at the peak of their vacation home purchasing potential.

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We adopted the model to California resorts with high hopes that the market was ripe for some new development.  The plan included two brand new golf course communities, a high-end luxury hotel with a residential component, and an 1,800-unit master planned community at the base of and on the ski resort, and a club to bring it all together.  Entitlements and planning took a couple of years but when the first real estate was offered it was obvious the plan was right.  In 2002 we began delivering finished lots and townhomes, and by 2005 we were delivering a multi-story mixed-use base ski village that was the nicest in the state. 

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At both the golf course communities and the ski village we had oversold lotteries to allow potential buyers the opportunity to select lots or units based on architectural renderings and site plans.  We had people threatening to sue because they showed up at a fancy hosted party and were unable to get their chance to plunk down a hefty deposit for a lot that hadn’t even been built.  That was the peak and we all now know that money was just too easy to come by and that was the real source of the hyper-competitive market for any and all real estate. 

We were writing the term sheets for construction loans and delivering to the banks, knowing if they didn’t take our proposed terms another bank would.  We created three different Community Facilities Districts with local utility and community services providers based on appraisals showing sales in the billions of dollars over the next 20 years.  Based on the way real estate was selling at the time, the assumptions were correct.  We had taken out every loan available, including the biggest loan the company had ever closed on to build the 5-star luxury hotel.  The loan was so big it took a consortium of four major international banks to deliver the funding.

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None of this was easy.  There was so much effort put in by smart and hard-working people.  We had folks that had relocated from around the country, experts in construction, sales and marketing, land planning, architecture and design, and finance.  The machine was humming, and the future was bright.

It was all too good to be true.

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Residential RE Advertising

Real estate advertising is tricky.  Selling a house is nothing like selling laundry detergent, a refrigerator, or even a car.  It’s different and so is the marketing and advertising that goes along with it.

I assume we’ve all seen the magazines and newspaper sections with house after house after house, hoping to attract your attention with the headlines….LUXURY!  SWIMMING POOL! LAKEFRONT! NEWLY REMODELED!  HOA!  NO HOA!  MASTER SUITE! 5,000 SQUARE FEET!  WINE CELLAR!

There are lots of keywords to choose from, but they do get a little bit repetitive.  How do you make a home stand out?  Real estate advertising seems to go one of either two ways.  Sell you on the lifestyle you’re going to live in this house or sell you on the outstanding features and finishes of the house. If you’re selling both, it’s getting expensive.

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Location, location, location is still the undefeated champion of real estate.  Folks choose where they want to live and then begin looking for a house.  Do they want to be on a golf course?  In the best school district?  Near public transportation or close to work?  A lot of self-sorting and narrowing of scope of product goes on before anyone does the research about specific houses.

Ideally, you choose the city, town, or neighborhood you want to live in and then start looking at prices and figure out if you can ratchet up expectations or if you’ll have to ratchet them down.  This is usually when a buyer thinks about bringing in a real estate agent to check out the available product.

Real estate advertising has morphed just like every other industry to acknowledge that digital and social are the most efficient ways to reach possible customers and buyers.  It amazes and kind of disgusts me every time I get a glimpse behind the wizard’s curtain to see the power of Facebook and Google, when it comes to tracking our every move on-line, and building a detailed profile of our behavior to then chase us around the digital world, advertising products their algorithms think will interest us.

The virtual tours, the Google earth street views, Zillow valuations, and the general abundance of information that can be provided on-line is wonderful for everyone.  If you were in a real estate showroom in the 90s or early 00s you know it was like an arms race among developers to produce the most beautiful and most expensive brochures, books, and catalogs.  Individual sellers didn’t go quite so far, but brokerages produced some very nice pieces which featured their best (most expensive) homes.

Nevertheless, I haven’t seen much evolution in the stories told in real estate advertising.  You go with product details such as hardwood floors, Wolf appliances, Italian marble tile, square footage, lot size, etc. Or real estate advertising shows you the life you aspire to….happy kids riding bikes in the driveway, a couple enjoying a glass of wine with the neighbors on the patio as the sun sets, a young man hosting the crew for a Super Bowl party in the man cave.  Real estate advertising isn’t too far removed from the Bud Light commercials showing everyone having the time of their life with beautiful people at the local watering hole.

photo credit to anheuser-busch. Long live Spuds!

The digital tools are great and allow for specific searches and a glut of information to help advance informed real estate sales, but I would like to see what the next big thing is.

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